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McGuire bill to halt North Coast coal train project sails through California Senate

A secretive plan to transport millions of tons of coal through the Sierra Nevada, across Sonoma County then north to Humboldt Bay was dealt a major blow Monday, when the California Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill preventing the use of state funds for the project.

Written by Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, the bill bars the state from spending money to initiate improvements on the now-defunct North Coast rail line north of Willits. It also prevents the spending of state funds on any potential new bulk coal terminal facilities at the Port of Humboldt. The bill passed 33-2, and now goes over to the state Assembly.

“The proposed toxic coal train is an environmental disaster in the making,” said McGuire in a release. The coal shipments would travel “through the heart of our thriving communities, ancient redwoods, and directly along the banks of the Eel and Russian rivers, which are the main drinking water source for nearly 1 million residents. It is crucial we stop this dangerous proposal — it transcends politics, and I’m grateful for the bipartisan support.”

If allowed to proceed, the coal-shipping scheme also would pose an existential threat to the Great Redwood Trail, a 316-mile foot and bike path envisioned to one day connect San Francisco Bay to Humboldt Bay.

The plan to haul coal on the now-crumbling railroad came to light in August, when a newly formed limited liability corporation objected to California’s effort to convert the abandoned tracks into a recreational trail. That mysterious outfit, the North Coast Railroad Company, filed paperwork before the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency that oversees freight rail shipping, claiming it had $1.2 billion in financing to restore abandoned rail segments that run through the region, including the remote, slide-prone Eel River Canyon.

The prospect of coal trains clanking through Northern California cities and towns and alongside the Russian and Eel rivers, has since generated widespread public outrage. In September, officials of the Humboldt Bay Harbor District, which regulates port facilities in the bay, essentially said the coal project was a non-starter.

“We have no intention of spending any time looking at the feasibility at all,” the district’s director, Larry Oetke, told The Press Democrat. “I don’t want to give it any credence.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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